The coronavirus pandemic is nearing another grim mark: 800,000 deaths in this country in its two-year run, with 1 in 100 of the fatalities occurring among those 65 and older.
The pandemic toll exceeds the population of cities like Washington, D.C., Seattle, Denver, Boston, and Memphis, and is heading toward the equivalent of spots like Charlotte and Fort Worth. The virus for some time now has proven to be deadlier than the military casualties the country experienced combined in World War II plus the Vietnam and Korean wars.
Still, millions of shoppers are cramming into stores and malls seeking seasonal bargains and gift-giving wonders. Tens of millions of travelers are ready to jump into cars, trains, buses, and planes for holiday and year-end journeys, to gather with friends and family.
Amid the bright lights and festive whirl, though, will the nation show an exhaustion with protective measures against the long coronavirus pandemic and will a worrisome winter turn into weeks or months more of death and dire illness for all too many?
Research clarifying Omicron perils
Pandemic uncertainty prevails. Experts have shared glimmers of better news, though, about Omicron, the latest and disconcerting coronavirus variant. It appears to spread fast and wide, though limited data suggests this viral strain may cause a milder illness.
Vaccine makers also are reporting that Omicron has mutated in ways that may reduce the effectiveness of existing shots against it. At the same time, though, it also appears from early research that boosters bring up present vaccines’ protection against the variant to high levels.
This has convinced even many doubters about boosters, so they are now more robustly endorsed by experts.
Federal regulators — who earlier expanded the eligibility to all vaccinated patients 18 and older for a third dose of the Pfizer and Moderna product after six months or a second dose after two months of another vaccine (Pfizer or Moderna) or of the Johnson & Johnson shot — lowered the booster recommended age. They now say it can be given safely and with excellent effect to previously vaccinated patients who are ages 16 and 17.
Experts have strongly encouraged those 50 and older to get boosters, pronto.
Vaccination demand, which had been sluggish, at best, and perhaps even stalled for months, has risen in recent days causing challenges to providers, particularly pharmacies. But, after seeing a rush for kids ages 5 to 12 to receive coronavirus vaccinations, the pediatric rates have slowed, especially for adolescents.
As of Dec. 10, federal officials reported that more than 200 million Americans are fully vaccinated and that almost 52 million have gotten boosters.
An unrelenting Delta assault
At the same time, as vaccinations take a central role in the battle against Omicron, it is the Delta variant that is savaging swaths of the country, causing patient surges — mostly of the unvaccinated — that are swamping hospitals and health systems with states in the Northeast and Great Lakes area slammed now.
After weeks of declines, following a brutal summer of the fourth and Delta variant-driven pandemic surge, cases are spiking — and so, too, are deaths. Officials report 120,000 cases on average are now occurring daily, a 38% increase, while hospitalizations have jumped to an average of 64,000 daily. The country is reporting more than 1,200 deaths a day, on average.
Hospitals in four states — Maine, New Hampshire, Indiana, and New York — are struggling so much with the current coronavirus wave that officials have mobilized National Guard assistance.
A lethal political calculus
Still, the politically partisan and virulent resistance only grows to various steps to quell the pandemic, especially requirements for people to get vaccinated. NPR has reported how an array of GOP personalities and operatives — including those notorious for their careers in spreading wild disinformation — have aligned themselves with fact-free extremists opposed to evidence-based science and modern medicine, particularly vaccines.
The bizarre Republican strategy of allowing the coronavirus pandemic to rage and then blaming Democrats and Biden for this is confounding but real: 40% of those telling opinion surveyors they are party backers also are refusing vaccinations. The more heavily that a given county voted for former President Trump, news media analyses show, the lower their vaccination rates — and they, as a result, have substantially higher coronavirus deaths and cases.
The unvaccinated, federal officials report from their research, are at 14 times greater risk of dying from the coronavirus than those who have gotten their shots.
Experts estimate that 163,000 of the U.S. coronavirus deaths between June and November of this year alone were preventable by safe and effective vaccines (see figure, above)
We are not done with the coronavirus and the huge trauma it has inflicted on us all. Please get tested, if appropriate, AND get vaccinated, AND get those booster shots. Officials are trying to make it as easy and convenient, as possible — and it’s free. If you’re uncertain about getting a booster or optimizing your mixing and matching of coronavirus shots, talk to your doctor, pronto. And, while you’re at it, ask about and get your annual flu shot.
We cannot ignore disease and death and embrace nihilism and fatalism. We cannot allow anti-science fanatics to destroy centuries of progress with the viral spread of ever-wilder fantasies and conspiracies. Our health system, the envy of the world, cannot be a toy that will be smashed and ruined by selfish belligerence. Here are wise words to be heeded from Francis Collins, the respected and retiring leader of the National Institutes of Health (and an elite researcher who has argued that religious faith and science can and must coexist):
“I do think we need to understand better how — in the current climate — people make decisions. I don’t think I anticipated the degree to which the tribalism of our current society would actually interfere with abilities to size up medical information and make the kinds of decisions that were going to help people. To have now 60 million people still holding off of taking advantage of lifesaving vaccines is pretty unexpected. It does make me, at least, realize, ‘Boy, there are things about human behavior that I don’t think we had invested enough into understanding.’
“We basically have seen the accurate medical information overtaken, all too often, by the inaccurate conspiracies and false information on social media. It’s a whole other world out there. We used to think that if knowledge was made available from credible sources, it would win the day. That’s not happening now.”
We can quell the coronavirus and we must do so before it mutates again in ways that can be even more disastrous.